Friday Five: The Best of Bristol SF/F
Fiction: "Enter the Dragon. Later, Enter Another" by Lavie Tidhar

Underground Reading: The Garden of Stones by Mark T Barnes

[This is part of a series reviewing all ten finalists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards.]

What's it about?

17046606Mark T. Barnes' The Garden of Stones (2013) opens on a truly epic landscape. The realm is in chaos. After the fall of the Awakened Empire (the latest in a series of empires), the land has been divided between the the avian Seethe, their semi-human creations, the Avan, the humans and a host of other creatures. The species all differ on their approach to immortality - a theme of The Garden of Stones - and the many different paths to death (and beyond). Some elect to stay on this mortal coil in the form of artificial bodies. Others have become ghostly creatures. For the Avan, there's even a form of psychic race-memory, where the leader of their people retains the knowledge of those who went before. And this is a very old world, with a lot of backstory knowledge.

As well as this weight of history, there is also the burden of prophecy. Corajidin, master of one of the great houses of the Avan, is dying - but his personal sorceror informs him that not only will he live, he will rule and restore the Empire. As the book begins, his plotting has set wheels in motion: the other Great Houses are in a state of upheaval, ancient relics are being uncovered (and they really shouldn't) and, generally speaking, shit's goin' down.

Fortunately, the warrior-wizard-scholar-mercenary-adventurer Indris stands in the way. Initially roped in through a sense of obligation - Indris' oft-referenced missing wife is the daughter of one of the Great Houses - he soon realises that there's a larger game afoot. Indris and his companions may be the only people that can stop Corajidin's ambitions.


The rose in the garden.

So, good stuff. 


Ok. Let's move on.

...and the weeds.

I'm really not happy that, alphabetically speaking, I drew The Garden of Stones as the first review. There are two interrelated reasons for this:

  1. I didn't finish it.
  2. I thought it was awful.

I think there's an interesting argument about whether or not I even have the 'right' to review this book - I barely made it to the 50% mark, after all. Leaving a book unfinished is extremely rare for me, and, if I recall correctly, this is the first time I've ever dared to review something that I didn't complete.  I'm completely happy to address the ethics of this in the comments. For the sake of this review, however, I do think it is fair to discuss why I stopped reading Garden of Stones, and why I thought it was, essentially, irredeemable.

[If you have a problem with me reviewing a book I couldn't finish - please skip to the comments now and leave me, and anyone else who comes along, a description of what I've missed by not making it to the end. And, as always, I would like to remind people that these reviews are just my opinion, and, everyone should read everything and make their own decisions. Caveat, caveat, caveat.]

From the start, there's something fundamentally disconcerting about joining an epic-level adventure. It is easy to mock the stable-boy trope in high fantasy, but it is there for a reason: it provides a sense of direction. In high fantasy, that direction - levelling-up, if you will - is often all the character development you get. In the better fantasies, there's a discussion of what that direction means to the character - from the "why me?" of Eddings' Belgarion to the prematurely white hair in the beard of Williams' Simon Snowlock. And, even in the bad fantasies, there's still the joy of growth - of overcoming obstacles of increasing difficulty and getting bigger, better toys as a result. We work towards the epic-level adventure.

In The Garden of Stones, we begin with an epic-level adventure. Indris is established from the first page as the baddest-ass wizard/warrior in the land, with a legendary weapon, unmatched martial prowess, infinite resources and an army of equally-ludicrous (if more specialised) companions. This isn't fun. He's an established character with settled plot arcs and, if advancement in this system is anything like D&D, it'll be another ten campaigns before he has the experience points to level again. Instead of seeing a character grow into himself, we're begin with a fully statted-out level 20 wizard/warrior. There's no direction for him to grow in: he's already fully grown. That's really dull.

This is also a microcosm of The Garden of Stones' larger problem: HOLY SHIT, THERE'S SO MUCH INFODUMPING. Indris vomits backstory every time he opens his mouth, and the book is wallpapered with paragraphs of explanation - about the world, about the magic, about the equipment, about the classes, about the way you distribute non-weapon proficiencies, about about about about... It achieves the exact opposite of what I interpret is its intention: by hammering me senseless with esoteric detail, I wound up ignoring all of it, desperately skimming each page in search of salient plot. Neither is it gracefully done - The Garden of Stones may boast my favourite ever passage of "As You Know, Bob" dialogue:

"You left me to rot in a hole when you had no more use for me. Anj-el-din died because of you."

"Don't lay your wife's fate at my feet!... Besides, you escaped.... It was our training [that] gave you the skills to escape. It's why we trained you so hard.... You were supposed to protect and serve the interests of your people..... But no, you had to marry. You betrayed the Order -"

"We were stronger together and you know it. Besides, you gave me my writ of release, so -"

"You were warned what would happen if trouble came calling!"

"And Anj? Was she so easy to forget?"

"You and Anj weren't meant to be together. You both had greater responsibilities."

"Are you truly so disappointed your best pupil thought being in love was enough?"

"...You left us to become a daimahjin [some sort of prestige class -- Jared].... You were never my best pupil. The most powerful, perhaps. Certainly the most gifted. Yet you never had to try at anything...."

"There were others you could've relied on."

"Of the eight I trained like you, only you, Saroyyin and Taqrit still live. Majadis, Devandai, Lilay and Ravashem are Lost, likely fallen to the Drear. They'll be hunted down and dealth with. Anj-el-din's fate you already know." (174)

WOW. I mean, this starts with "As you know, you were in prison...", leaps to "As you know, my wife is dead" and somehow goes downhill from there.

Of course, just flipping through that same chapter, the reader is also given a potted history of the House of Pearl (courtesans), a lengthy summary of the current political climate, the role of the Seq Order of Scholars (wizards) and then a page or two on the Empress in Shadows. It is dense.

What that passage also reveals are a reliance on both stilted prose and a vocabulary composed of high fantasy nonsense. These are present in force from the opening passages, and refused to dissipate as the book continued. Nor did either the reliance on stilted prose nor the reliance on high fantasy nonsense showed any indication of dissipating by the book's halfway point. Although there were a few unintentionally hilarious moments of flowery speech gone awry, the best being:

"You know I will not survive unless I find an answer to what is killing me." (113)

Well. Yes?

In a good high fantasy novel, the nonsense and the stilted prose can be offset by compelling characterization. Not so here. Indris, as noted, is so unreachable that he becomes completely unempathetic. Despite multiple occasions where he whines about his a) missing wife, b) sense of duty or c) having been sent to prison where people let him rot, he doesn't seem particularly hard done by. Instead, during his fits of moping, his friends/mentors/companions/rulers beg him to Do Something. Then he does. 

Meanwhile, when Indris isn't brooding about how the whole world revolves around him (it does), we cut to the love interest - Mari. Mari is Coraijidin's daughter, but also a member of the [something unpronounceable], the bodyguards to the [whatever], the leader of the Avan. Her father's schemes divide her loyalties between family and empire. She would be more interesting if she didn't spend most of her time, Indris-like, mithering... and then reacting solely on instinct.

Mari and Indris' relationship is, like everything else in the book, front-loaded; they have sex at a festival in the first few chapters. Then, later, she figures out that she just had a one night stand with her father's enemy. Hijinks ensue. But this is a theme to The Garden of Stones - everything meaningful has already happened. Just as with Indris' advancement as a warrior/mage, everything that would make us care about his and Mari's personal lives has occurred at some point in the pre-book past. 

This is the critical imbalance to The Garden of Stones. Be it the fall of an empire (or three), Indris' low- and mid-level campaigns, Indris' school days and marriage, Mari's training, Coraijidin's plotting, the historical conflicts in this ridiculous world... all the dry world-building is being infodumped by the truckload while anything that might support character development is brushed aside. 

Golly. Don't be shy.

I didn't like this book very much. In fact, I can guess/hope/pray that Garden of Stones will be my least favourite of all the Morningstar (debut) category, and possibly of all ten finalists. But I don't want to be too optimistic and jinx things... I know I set out a whole list of Gemmellian criteria that I should be looking for in these reviews, but The Garden of Stones stumbles at the most basic requirement for any book: it's boring - I simply couldn't bear to keep reading it.

In fairness, and this is worth noting, The Garden of Stones doesn't do anything evil - and by that, I mean the reactionary bullshit that I'll inevitably find on display in some of the other finalists. Ok, granted there are courtesans-on-pedestals, a fridged wife and the Evil Sexpot Late-In-Life Wife of the Big Bad, but that's all (sadly) tame by genre standards. And Mari, for what its worth, isn't a 'bad' female character. Sure, she's obsessed with Indris, but so is everyone else. If there were a Bechdel Test for Indris, the entire book would fail. (Or the first half, at least.) 

So The Garden of Stones may not be, you know, vile, but it is still a lengthy and obsequious paeon to an epic-level RPG that we've never played. And that's not in any way fun. Judging by the torrential gush of geographic, demographic and historical information at every turn, this is clearly a meticulously detailed world... but why should we care? If all the battles and betrayals of the past are so important, why aren't they the focus book instead? And, conversely, it is no good having the lead character constantly remind us that everything that everything that made him interesting has already occurred. Why aren't we reading those adventures? We're stuck reading the vastly inferior sequel to a book that was never written.

Or, in my case, not reading.